Monthly Archives: April 2008

First Things: The Pope's Plan for the UN

By Douglas A. Sylva

Pope Benedict’s address to the U.N. General Assembly possessed no
obvious and immediate Regensburg passage, no startling phrase to shake
observers from comfortable assumptions and to foster debate about the
institution. This was all the more troubling for those who know–and who
know that Pope Benedict knows–that for all the good it may do on
humanitarian grounds, the United Nations is a primary political
opponent of the pope in his effort to defend three bedrock values,
values he himself has labeled as nonnegotiable: the protection of human
life from conception to natural death, the protection of marriage as a
union between a man and a woman, and the protection of the right of
parents to control the education of their children. None received
explicit mention in his speech.

In fact, some passages in the speech could be interpreted as a papal
blessing, of sorts, of increased authority for the United Nations: “The
international community must intervene” in domestic affairs when
sovereign nations cannot or will not protect the rights of their
citizens; the “multilateral consensus” cannot be “subordinated to the
decisions of a few”; the United Nations has the “responsibility to
protect” all of humanity. Could it be that Pope Benedict is an
uncritical admirer of the U.N.?

Of course not. The truth of the matter is that, such statements
notwithstanding, the entire address should be considered a profound and
extended type of Regensburg moment. On reflection, what Benedict called
for, even if the awed diplomats in attendance may have missed it, was
no less than the international application of the American concept of
the separation of church and state, a concept that Benedict considers
essential if the international community is to be predicated upon the
inherent dignity of the human person. At the very deepest level, his
apparently pro-U.N. speech turned out to be a stunning endorsement of
the United States’ understanding of religion in the public sphere, and
the need to apply that understanding to international dialogue. This is
the case even though no news reports noticed; it is the case even
though “America” or the “United States” does not appear once in the
address.

To begin, it is important to note what did appear in the speech, and
what appeared repeatedly: The pope thought it necessary to refer to the
concept of human dignity nine separate times. Why? Human dignity is a
type of shorthand for the recognition of the proper status of the human
person. What is that status? According to Benedict, the human person is
“the high-point of God’s creative design for the world and for
history.”

{read it all}

The NY Times: The Pastor Casts a Shadow

By Bob Herbert

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright went to Washington on Monday not to praise Barack Obama, but to bury him.

Smiling, cracking corny jokes, mugging it up for the big-time news media — this reverend is never going away. He’s found himself a national platform, and he’s loving it.

It’s a twofer. Feeling dissed by Senator Obama, Mr. Wright gets revenge on his former follower while bathed in a spotlight brighter than any he could ever have imagined. He’s living a narcissist’s dream. At long last, his 15 minutes have arrived.

So there he was lecturing an audience at the National Press Club about everything from the black slave experience to the differences in sentencing for possession of crack and powdered cocaine.

All but swooning over the wonderfulness of himself, the reverend acts like he is the first person to come up with the idea that blacks too often get the short end of the stick in America, that the malignant influences of slavery and the long dark night of racial discrimination are still being felt today, that in many ways this is a profoundly inequitable society.

This is hardly new ground. The question that cries out for an answer from Mr. Wright is why — if he is so passionately committed to liberating and empowering blacks — does he seem so insistent on wrecking the campaign of the only African-American ever to have had a legitimate shot at the presidency.

On Sunday night, in an appearance before the Detroit N.A.A.C.P., Mr. Wright mocked the regional dialects of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. I’m not sure how he felt that was helpful in his supposed quest to bring about a constructive discussion about race and reconciliation in the U.S.

What he is succeeding in doing is diminishing the stature of Senator Obama. A candidate who stands haplessly by as his former spiritual guide roams the country dropping one divisive bomb after another is in very little danger of being seen by most voters as the next J.F.K. or L.B.J.

{read it all}

HT: Kendall

The Rev. Dr. George Sumner: Convention Address, Diocese of Tennessee, January 26, 2008, St Bartholomew’s Church Nashville

I found Dr. Sumner’s address to convention to be very interesting and inspiring during these times. I’m glad they posted it on the Diocesan website.

In the spirit of the past as prologue to the future, and of reclaiming the rich treasure of our Anglican past, let us begin this morning by asking what clergy life and ministry were like at the parish grassroots two centuries ago in merry old England. If we listen to the commentators of the time, the answer is often very, very odd. One priest, we read, would give a normal homily in the morning, but at evensong insisted on preaching only about the Empress Josephine. An historian named Brendon tells us that another parson in the West Country did not enter his church for 53 years, and kenneled the local foxhounds in the vicarage. A neighboring priest refused to do any services, but would greet the parishioners in the Churchyard wearing a flowered dressing gown and smoking a hookah. Yet another drove his flock away, replaced them with wooden and cardboard images in the pews, and “surrounded his vicarage with barbed wire behind which savage Alsatians patrolled.” Another spent his whole ministry searching for the number of the beast while the rector of Luffincott devoted all his time to calculating the date of the millennium. Yet another installed his own sanitary arrangements in his choir stall, while a nearby priest declared himself a neo-platonist and sacrificed an ox to Jupiter on the church grounds.

But my personal favorite is one Joshua Brooks of Manchester. During a burial service he abruptly left the church, went nearby to the confectioner’s shop, bought some gumdrops, and came back to finish up the service. One Easter Monday, the traditional day for marriages in the parish, he had a number of couples to marry at once, got the names confused, married several to the wrong spouses, and so at the end of the service declared imperiously “just sort yourselves out when you leave…” All this inspired the archdeacon to tell the new bishop ‘your clergy, my lord, may be divided into three categories: those who have gone out of their minds, those about to go out of their minds, and those who have no minds to go out of.” And then there was Montague who hung the coat of his late dog Tango in the sacristy closet …maybe that is enough! So good news, Bishop John, our little history lesson makes even your most vexing priest and parish of the diocese of Tennessee look pretty good! My point, brothers and sisters, is simply this: if you have your days when Episcopal church life seems to you confused and deformed, right you are, and if you think this is unprecedented, think again!

And it was into just this sort of a church, a church so moribund that many commentators did not suppose it could survive another generation, that Charles Simeon had, by the grace of God, a most fruitful and groundbreaking ministry. My topic this morning is mission, but I want to get at that topic through the historical lens of this one parish priest in the town of Cambridge, diocese of Ely, Church of England. You might call this a bit of missiological hagiography, since Simeon finds a place in the list of saints in Lesser Feasts and Fasts of our Church on November 12. As a young man Simeon came to Cambridge in 1799. He was not a particularly religious sort, and in that time evangelicals were looked down upon. Six had recently been expelled from Oxford for Methodist practices, and many bishops frowned on what they called “the serious clergy,” far too earnest, and their sermons far too long. At matriculation Simeon was told that as a student at Cambridge, he had to prepare for, and make his communion, three times a year. He was a dutiful young man and so set about reading what he could find about a holy life, concluding his own lack of that quality, which in turn disturbed him. During lent he heard in university church the story of the scapegoat in the Old Testament, and became fascinated with the idea that one could bear away the wrong of another- all this on his own, not bad for a freshman! On Easter morning, the Holy Spirit touched his heart, as he writes: “Jesus Christ is risen today, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, peace flowed in rich abundance into my soul, and at the Lord’s Table (of king’s chapel), I had a sweetest access to God through my blessed savior.” He held to this, the insight of a moment, the core of the Gospel, throughout his whole life. He was ordained soon thereafter, and was offered a struggling old parish in the heart of the town called Holy Trinity.

{Read it all}


Being Salt: A Theology of an Ordered Church

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As someone with some pogonotrophy of his own…

I have to share this review of Rowan Williams’ Wrestling with Angels from David Bently Hart. Before you read it, you should know that when I first read Hart’s In the Beauty of the Infinite I had to re-read the first page about three times before I had a firm enough footing to continue on. Once I got started though, it was well worth it.

At any rate, Hart lays to rest any doubt about Williams’ theological prowess… while at the same time making me run for the dictionary twice. Enjoy. (HT: PSA+)

In a bracingly venomous Spectator article on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent remarks about sharia law in Britain, the journalist Rod Liddle opined that it must be Rowan Williams’s beard that has won him the reputation of an intellectual. Certainly, Liddle remarked, “it cannot be anything he has ever said or written”. I have to confess my doubts that Liddle has really read much of Williams’s oeuvre. No one who had – whatever reservations he or she might harbour as to the Archbishop’s wisdom, prudence or pogonotrophy – could possibly dismiss the man as a featherweight or a fraud.

Well before he moved to Lambeth Palace (heedless, alas, of a few desperate voices calling him back from the edge), Rowan Williams had established himself as perhaps Britain’s most impressive theological virtuoso. His gifts as a linguist alone set him apart from most of his contemporaries, granting him access to texts and conversations well outside the orbits of more narrowly specialized researchers, and his ability to speak authoritatively, reflectively and creatively on authors as diverse as the Greek Fathers, the medieval and early modern mystics, the German idealists, the Russian Sophiologists, and so forth, marked him from an early age as an uncommon talent, possessed of a scholarly range that even the most accomplished theologians might envy. Whether his intellectual attainments have translated well into the sort of public skills required of a church leader is a legitimate matter of debate; whether those attainments are real and substantial, however, is not.

{Read it all}

Note: Pogonotrophy means: the care and cultivation of beards. Don’t worry, I had to look it up too.

Score another for Bishop Wright: Euthanasia–a murky moral world

The more I’ve read about Bishop Wright recently, and the strong moral stands he has taken, the more I believe we should be thanking God for leaders like him and praying that he would life up even more in the Church and society at large. Having done my CPE training in an area of a veterans hospital that was transitioning to a focus on palliative care I can testify to it’s benefits for the patient and family.


Legalised killing is unacceptable. We must consider the radical alternative – palliative care

David Aaronovitch, using the pulpit of his column, challenged me to justify an “outrageous claim” that I made in my Easter sermon. I said that there was a “militantly atheist and secularist lobby” that believes that “we have the right to kill… surplus old people”. He replied that it was simply not true.

But there is clearly a strong body of opinion – part of a larger, albeit unorganised, secularising or atheist agenda – pressing in this direction. Such an agenda doesn’t need protest marches. It has powerful politicians and journalists presenting the case.

Lord Joffe’s “assisted dying” Bill, rejected by the Lords last year, was, at one level, about “voluntary euthanasia”. The normal word for that is, of course, suicide. But his Bill was about those too ill to achieve that unaided – it was proposing not just “voluntary dying” but “lawful killing” by people enlisted by the patient. You can’t reduce this, as Mr Aaronovitch implied, to “people having a right to end their own lives”. The question is, do other people have the right to help them do so? Those who support this Bill reckoned they do.

He might want to come back at me on two other counts. First, I said “old” people. But clearly young people, too, suffer debilitating and incurable diseases. Reports from the Netherlands suggest that moves are being made to extend the euthanasia protocol to cover new-born children.

{read it all}

A good question…

Josh S. from Cruising down the Coast of the High Barbaree asks a good question:

Do any theologians who advocate gay marriage and the like believe in original sin? A lot of the arguments come down to “God created me this way, so it must be good,” which seems to me like a denial of original sin.

In my experience, those theologians who view homosexuality as a good in the same or very similar sense to heterosexuality and who therefore tend to argue for affirmation of homosexual relationships, do not really address the fall or original sin–they are in fact often hostile to it and would opine that we have “moved beyond” these concepts.

In contrast, those theologians who maintain a doctrine of original sin are less than sanguine about the affirmation of homosexual relationships.  I’ve read some who would argue that such relationships (either chaste or sexually active, depending on the thinker) should be tolerated as a sort of nod to the broken nature of the world that we all live in, and therefore such homosexual relationships are awaiting redemption with the rest of us and creation as a whole.  I’m not sure such a view is anymore comforting to homosexuals than the traditional view.  It’s sort of like the difference between “You’re broken and wrong but there is help for you and you can change” and “you’re broken and wrong, and there may be help, but really we’re all broken so if you can’t change, we understand that and wait for the day when we all can…

If you have any thoughts or references, please post them over at Josh’s blog.

Recent book purchases…

Who knows when I’ll get to read them :-p..

Actually, I’ve skimmed some of them… the first two are interesting and I’m excited about the topic as I’ve often thought people make the mistake of percieving contemporary Judaism as somehow prior historically to Christianity when in fact modern Judaism and Christianity are siblings. Taken in that way, it is then unsurprising to consider that there would be aspects of Israelite Religion and 2nd Temple Judaism that survive in Christianity, both in terms of teachings and in terms of tradition and practice. It makes the most sense to look to the early liturgies, as well as the fragmentary evidence we have from scripture (the bits and glimpses of hymnody and liturgy we can see in Paul for example) for evidence.

My one qualm with the texts so far is how much the author seems to emphasize gnostic thought, though she does seemingly want to draw a strong distinction between a wisdom tradition in the early Church and the other groups that sprang up teaching bizarre doctrines, both of which she is calling “gnostic” in the general sense. She relies heavily on Clement of Alexandria as a proponent of the Christian wisdom tradition who at the same time countered other forms of (what I would call) pagan/heretical gnosticism.

The third text is a book published after the execution of Charles I (King and Martyr as some Anglicans have referred to him) supposedly conveying his justification for his actions/decisions etc… as well as a recording of his final words. In addition, this edition contains the criticisms of the text that were authored by John Milton (a Republican with some unorthodox religious beliefs…) So there you have the newest additions to my library.

From Inhabitatio Dei: The Role of Hauerwas in Contemporary Theology

I intended to post this several days ago, but got very busy during and after Holy Week. I hope Halden doesn’t mind me directing attention toward an older post.

Good stuff from Inhabitatio Dei:

Nearly everyone who’s interested in contemporary theology has heard of Stanley Hauerwas. Indeed out of all contemporary theological figures he may be the one who today its hardest to have not heard of or read. One way or another everyone has to deal with Hauerwas. Whether you’re Jeffrey Stout, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Robert Jenson, Stephen Webb or whoever, if you’re writing on ethics, politics, or anything pertaining to the Christian use of force, you simply have to deal with Hauerwas.

However, the flip side of this is that it also seems somewhat fashionable in contemporary theology to not take Hauerwas seriously. A great many theologians seem to take joy in deriding him as little more than a cantankerous bastard with a squeaky voice who is better laughed at then engaged. Now, to my mind both of these dynamics in contemporary theological discourse only point to Stanley’s importance as a theologian. If, on the one hand a great many people find him an indispensable interlocutor and a comparable number of other folks consider him simply someone to ridicule away, it would seem a reasonable conclusion that whatever Stanley’s got to say it is either vitally important or vitally dangerous.

So this brings me to my question, what is the role of Stanley Hauerwas in contemporary theology? What position does he, or should he occupy in the cartography of doing theology today? What do people think?

{read it all}

Ok… here’s my response. I’m closing comments here because I want to encourage everyone to go over to the Inhabitatio Dei blog and leave their responses in the comments there.

Hauerwas is by his own admission a contrarian, but I think what is first and foremost is that he is a Christian contrarian, and he is someone who strives to allow the gospel to challenge his inclinations and then announces that challenge to others. Sometimes the challenge Hauerwas proclaims isn’t necessarily the one that others might see–sometimes the challenge is seen as simply part of Hauerwas’ own biases. Be that as it may, and taking into account that there are places where I disagree with him (his total commitment to non-violence for example), I can’t recall a time when he has asked a question that I’ve thought about later and said “that really wasn’t important” or “why address that?” Instead, I’ve been challenged to examine my own beliefs in light of the Holy Scripture and the Christian tradition. At times I have come to change my perspectives, while at others I haven’t. But even in the latter cases, my foundation for thinking as I do has been greatly strengthened.

Ironically perhaps, several of the critiques leveled at Hauerwas in the discussion thread seem to be highlighting aspects of this thought that he is intentional about. For instance, one commentator in particular criticizes Hauerwas for “inconsistency” because he largely focusses his criticism on liberal protestantism while remaining in “liberal” protestant institutions, i.e. teaching at a United Methodist University and attending United Methodist and Episcopal churches. As another commentator pointed out quite succinctly, to view this as inconsistent is to miss a major facet of Hauerwas’ thinking: to be a witness where God has placed you. There is a particularly poor example of “consistency” given by comparing Hauerwas to his former student R.R. Reno who did in fact leave the Episcopal Church for Roman Catholicism. This is not intended in any way as a slam on Reno (whom I have a great deal of respect for), but his move to the RC Church can hardly be considered the most “consistent” outcome of his theology.

But while Hauerwas isn’t particularly inconsistent, it is important to note that consistency as such doesn’t deem to enter into his project as any sort of laudable goal. There is consistency to be sure, but only in the sense that he tries to make faithfulness to the Jesus we know from Scripture the hallmark of his work. Hauerwas would be the first to say that any particular point of his theology that was seen to be in conflict with scripture should be rejected (of course, those pronouncements are debatable, as always). Hauerwas’ work primarily consists of “occasional theology,” that is, he writes for particular occasions or purposes, which is appropriate when one considers his Methodist/Anglican roots. Certainly he has ranged widely and been influenced by those he has come into contact with (Roman Catholics and Mennonites etc…), but perhaps there is a reason he finds himself at home among Methodists and Episcopalians.

In the occasional nature of his theology, one can also see the sense in which it is practical (one of the reasons he is not taken seriously by some academic theologians). Hauerwas’ writing serves, at least in my humble opinion, as a bridge between academic theology and practical theology without fitting squarely in either place. His work is too academic to be considered “practical” by some, and it is too “practical” to be considered sufficiently academic by others. But what he is doing is providing a framework for engagement with the world on the gospel’s terms (at least as he sees them), and in that sense he is providing a great service to the Church.

In the end, it seems that the person leveling this particular criticism of Hauerwas is simply irritated about the fact that there are people within their Church (it seems they are Episcopalian–probably could’ve guessed :-p ) who criticize liberalism. In addition to destroying any possibility for self-criticism, the commentator seems to have totally missed the differences between the various ways we use the term “liberal” in our society and instead views that as interchangeable. So, Hauerwas shouldn’t be in a “liberal” Protestant body because he critiques “liberalism” and he certainly shouldn’t be attending an Episcopal Church where the parishioners tend to be the most “liberally educated” among the various church bodies. Of course, “Liberal Protestantism” when referring to the theological movement, such as those professors of the German State Church that cozied up to Hitler, overlaps but is not coterminous with “liberal protestant” when used to refer to the mainold-line Protestant churches which is not the same as what is meant by a “liberal education” and none of the above is the same as political “liberalism,” all of which seem confused by this criticism.

In the end, I think Jonathan Wilson offers the best and most balanced assessment of Hauerwas’ place in contemporary theology. I could go on in more detail and at greater length, but this post is already very late, and I want it out of my “drafts” section. Perhaps it will be worthwhile to some of you.